How Toronto became one of the greatest places in the world to see a movie

With the historic Paradise Cinema finally reopening, the city's cinema culture has reached peak glory.

With the historic Paradise Cinema finally reopening, the city's cinema culture has reached peak glory

Paradise Theatre in 2019. (Paradise Theatre)

It was a Wednesday night in Toronto and my friend Trevor and I had plans to see a movie. At The Royal, Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was screening on 35mm — but so was Martin Scorsese's 1977 comedy musical New York, New York at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Cinematheque's ongoing retrospective on The Irishman director. Then there was Apocalypse Now screening in IMAX at my favourite venue in town, the recently restored Cinesphere, rescued from its days showing educational films at the former Ontario Place. If we weren't in the mood for fiction, we could also patronize Hot Docs — the Toronto theatre solely dedicated to documentaries — to catch an intimate portrait of an old RuPaul's Drag Race contestant, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts. Or maybe Pedro Almovodar's Pain & Glory, which was playing at the Revue Cinema? In the end, we settled for Scorsese on 35mm — though how could anyone call this settling? After enjoying a packed, buzzy screening in the Lightbox's Cinema 4, I sauntered out with my half-eaten bag of popcorn, wondering how Toronto had become one of the greatest places in the world to see a movie.

Cinema culture in Toronto has become an embarrassment of riches. In December alone, unmissable screenings on my calendar at independent cinemas like The Royal, The Revue, TIFF Bell Lightbox and, now, the newly restored Paradise Cinema include Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven on 35mm; a showing of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette hosted by fashion writer Natalie Atkinson; the 1929 silent German noir Asphalt with a live score; a 4K restoration of Spike Lee's coming-of-age feature School Daze; Brian De Palma's Scarface (I've never seen it!); the original 1937 George Cukor version of A Star is Born; Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Raging Bull on 35mm; Chantal Akerman's final film No Home Movie; and Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey on pristine 70mm prints, with nary a Christmas movie in sight. In a mere decade since the TIFF Lightbox found a home at King and John Street, how did Toronto get so thirsty for film? And in an age when "Netflix and chill" proliferates my Tinder inbox, how is it sustainable?

"When we first opened as a not-for-profit in 2007, we struggled for over a decade," says Eric Veillette, the lead programmer of the Revue Cinema in Toronto's Roncesvalles neighbourhood. "We just had our annual general meeting a couple weeks ago and posted a surplus of over $97,000 in a fiscal year."

Revue Cinema. (Revue Cinema)

Like the other venue programmers in town, Veillette is now following a new strategy, focusing on idiosyncratic special events helmed by popular curators. Theatrical chains like Cineplex tend to bully independent cinemas, holding back new release titles if they do well and barring theatres like the Paradise from playing any of their movies if they deem them too close to a nearby cinema. To give you some numbers, there are 47 screens in downtown Toronto and 1,000 Cineplex Theatres across the country — so indie theatres are in a tough bind, as big distributors like the Disney-owned 20th Century Fox have also barred them from showing their movies.

"We've shifted to more special events and are now averaging 140 people [a screening]," says Veillette. "Our series like Drunken Cinema" — in which audiences follow a list of interactive instructions that goes along with a bill of 80s and 90s nostalgia films — "and Dumpster Raccoon" — Anthony Oliveira's popular series of cult cinema classics paired with live drag performances — "sell out every month. We have to add multiple screenings and it's a very pleasant problem to have."

Gone are the same three screening of Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange and The Rocky Horror Picture Show I watched dutifully at the Bloor Cinema every month in college. And here comes the game-changing weirdness of series like The Ladies of Burlesque, curated by programmer Alicia Fletcher at The Royal, which pairs each movie with a live striptease before the show. Toronto audiences can now watch movies narrated by drunk feminists (Drunk Feminist Films) or drag queens (Screen Queens), while the TIFF Cinematheque digs deep into the archive of film history, offering comprehensive retrospectives on auteurs both internationally revered, like Scorsese, and more unknown, like Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Series like Boosie Fade and Black Gold make space for Black-identified films and artists with discounted tickets for members of the community and special introductions before the film, while the MDFF programme — curated by local filmmakers Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery — offers the rare opportunity to catch the work of emerging independent auteurs like Denis Côté's Wilcox, which you normally wouldn't see outside of a film festival like Locarno or RIDM.

TIFF Bell Lightbox. (TIFF)

Writer/filmmaker Jesse Hawken, who has been seeing movies in Toronto since the early 70s, has seen a noticeable change in Toronto's cinephile culture over the last decade.

"Right now, I think Toronto has got it as good as any other city in the country," says Hawken. "It's not the greatest hits anymore; you don't go to see an old Otto Preminger movie and the lights go down and the movie starts. They have someone come in and talk about the film, or there'll be a burlesque dance. It's a way of putting audiences in the right frame of mind to enjoy a film, and it's all about getting the enthusiasm these people feel for a movie to be contagious."

He adds that the movies programmed tend to lie outside the usual film canon and include even (undeserved) flops, like a January screening of Elaine May's Ishtar, which was hosted by Hawken this year with a 15-minute contextual introduction. "I'm glad to see people showing movies that we don't all agree are good. It's important to say, 'Here's a movie that you probably haven't even thought about and here's why you should give it some consideration.' Sure, we've all seen Boyz in the Hood, but have you seen Poetic Justice?"

The recently reopened Paradise Cinema, which had closed its doors in 2006, is the most enticing harbinger of what's to come, offering personalized bar service and a sit-down meal with your movie — just like the notorious Alamo Drafthouse. The gloriously restored art deco venue at Bloor and Westmoreland, originally built in 1937, boasts a sleek upstairs cocktail bar that feels like the sort of fancy train car you'd flirt with Cary Grant inside (before he gets arrested on suspicion of murder in a Hitchcock movie) and a glistening golden lobby. When I caught a luxurious screening of the pre-code romantic comedy The Awful Truth, I couldn't believe this little slice of paradise was five minutes away from my house. In addition to screening the Netflix movies Marriage Story and The Irishman, the theatre offers its own brand of curation. Forthcoming Paradise screenings include the series "Toronto Plays Itself," featuring local films shot in Toronto, and "Paradise Day," in which the theatre will screen Trouble In Paradise, Cinema Paradiso, Stranger Than Paradise and Phantom of the Paradise on the same day (Sunday, December 8).

Paradise Theatre in its heyday. (Paradise Theatre)

Jessica Smith, the cinema's director of programming, had taken a 20-year break from Toronto life as she lived in Montreal, New York and London, England. She wants to look to venues like New York's Metrograph and Vancouver's Rio Theatre as examples of how to make a sustainable, community-based independent theatre that offers experiential programming. Not only will the Paradise show movies, they'll also host everything from a Kate Bush Tribute Night (happening this month) to live comedy and one-woman shows as part of their own strategy of staying competitive in an increasingly diverse indie cinema landscape.

"Historically, this was always the neighbourhood cinema," says Smith. "What I'm hoping to do, from a programming standpoint, is to bring in people who have established careers and ties to international artists and films. We want to find a throughline that connects all of our diverse content because what's so exciting is the idea that you could turn up here any day of the week and have a completely different experience."

Film can be a really important thing, beyond just a movie business, for where we are culturally and how we understand each other.- Jesse Wente, Indigenous Screen Office director

Former theatre programmer Jesse Wente — who was the director of TIFF Cinematheque for many years before creating his own position as the director of the Indigenous Screen Office — understands the challenges that lie ahead for an indie venue like The Paradise.

"The commercial side is doing what it's doing, so it's up to rep cinemas to carve out their own niche and be really successful at that," says Wente. "The threat is really coming from the industry to see if you can programmers have to do the work to find their audiences and nurture and care for them. The audience also has to do some work and leave the house. Together, I think film can be a really important thing, beyond just a movie business, for where we are culturally and how we understand each other."

Veillette believes that there is a rabid Toronto audience who wants to see as much cinema as they can.

"Just this August, Anthony Oliveira's Dumpster Raccoon series did a sold-out screening of Barbarella. At the Royal, playing at the exact same time, was Fantastic Planet. Here were two classic sci-fi films playing within a stone's throw of each other and both houses were sold out. I find even with the addition of 200 plus seats at the Paradise, it's just like — the more the merrier."


Chandler Levack is an award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, her short film We Forgot to Break Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. She is currently working on her first feature Anglophone.